Why not jump all the way in? The water of openness is so inviting. Non-dogmatic, fresh, cleansing. Why continue to just dangle feet over the dock of fundamentalism instead of leaping free and taking the plunge?
Because unexamined assumptions hold us back. We non-believers actually believe in more than we're aware of. Decrying religious absolutism, we've got some absolutes of our own enshrined in our psyches.
This is one of the disconcerting (but in a pleasing way, like when you're shoved off a place you didn't really want to be at) messages I've gotten from Robert Burton's "On Being Certain," the subject of some previous posts – here and here.
I was contentedly chugging along through the book, having read about two-thirds of it, feeling pretty good about myself as Burton (a neurologist) kept showing how people aren't justified in taking what they know as absolutely certain, because our feeling of knowing is a product of hidden brain mechanisms that we can't know about.
Oh, yeah, I kept saying to myself, this supports my churchlessness! A few pages further: Ooh, this too! I'm so right about not feeling that I'm right.
There's nothing more pleasurable than a book that reinforces my positive view of myself. That's why I had an inkling of distress when I starting reading the chapter on "Faith" and came to a warning: Caution: Deconstruction Zone Ahead.
Burton started off his demolition project by quoting Richard Dawkins, a relentless proponent of science and critic of blind religious faith. Then Burton said:
When I read recommendations for cobra venom injections as the definitive treatment for multiple sclerosis or hear someone insist that a blastocyst has a soul, I feel compelled to ask, "Where's the evidence?" When terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center, I am horrified by the power of religion to subvert the minds of the young. One of the overriding fears of our time is that excesses of belief may destroy civilization.
So at first glance, Dawkins's criticism of faith-based arguments is right on. But can we follow his advice and still get up in the morning? Is it possible to have a sense of meaning and purpose without some feeling of faith?
Some additional quotes from Dawkins revealed that he "both believes in his powers of introspection and self-assessment and that he is mentally capable of understanding why the world and we exist – the myth of the autonomous rational mind. This is coupled with another act of faith – the belief that possessing complete knowledge of the physical laws of the universe will tell us why we are here."
What Burton is pointing to here, and he goes on to further deconstruct religious, scientific, and every other sort of faith, is something that I'd taken for granted. On faith.
Namely, that there are answers to the big questions of life that I'm so uncertain about. I may never know the answers. No one may. But the answers are out there, potentially accessible to a human consciousness.
My life has a purpose: to fathom what life is all about. I'm assuming that dogmatic religious, spiritual, or metaphysical faith doesn't help with the fathoming. However, my feeling of purposefulness underlies assumptions of every sort.
Meaning, I could be like Dawkins – unfettered by supernatural varieties of faith. Yet there still would be a common denominator between me and religious fundamentalists.
A sense of purpose. Burton says:
There is a problem basic to the science-religion controversy: Although the sense of purpose is a necessary and involuntary mental sensation, it isn't easily comprehensible solely as a sensation. It doesn't feel right to say, "I have a sense of purpose but don't know what it is."
…Try to state your purpose or the meaning of life without expressing thanks, gratitude, obligation, moral imperative, and a need for a greater understanding of the unknown. Whatever the explanation there is an underlying implication of a something beyond us that needs to be acknowledged or pursued – from an all-knowing God to the awe-inspiring physical laws of the universe.
Religious purpose might be described as the movement toward the understanding or embracing of a higher power. Scientific purpose might be described as a movement toward understanding the nature of the mystery of the universe.
How different the science-religion controversy would be if we acknowledged that a deeply felt sense of purpose is as necessary as hunger and thirst – all are universally necessary for survival and homeostasis. How we express those sensations will be a matter of personal taste and predilection.
Our sense of purpose is closely related to our sense of knowing. Neither is under conscious control. Each pops out of that hidden layer of brain activity/organization mentioned in my previous post. Burton writes:
Imagine the sense of purpose as a powerful committee member within the hidden layer. It carefully weighs all inputs, positively weighting those experiences and ideas that feel right while negatively weighting those that feel wrong, strange, or unreal…Stated purpose is a personal hidden layer-based narrative – not a reasoned argument.
My own sense of personal purpose is different from Burton's. As is yours from mine. And any other person's from everybody else's.
Yet my sense of purpose feels so right to me. As yours does to you. Ditto for my sense of knowing, because I just know. Geez, why can't other people see that my purpose and my knowing are so obviously the way things are?!
Because those other people aren't me. Only I am.
I am, however, constantly changing. As new inputs from fresh experiences are added to the hidden layer of consciousness, Burton says that the "cognitive stew" is altered.
But this is a low probability uphill battle: the best of arguments is only one input pitted against a lifetime of acquired experience and biological tendencies operating outside of our conscious control. To expect well-reasoned arguments to easily alter personal expressions of purpose is to misunderstand the biology of belief.
What we can do, seemingly, is better understand the nature of our understandings. Not with an eye to changing them, but so our vision of who we are is more in tune with the way things are rather than how we imagine them to be.
My whole life, I've assumed that a central purpose of life is to know more about the cosmos. Underlying that assumption was a fundamental core belief: that it's possible for people to grasp the nature of the universe, whether this be physical, spiritual, or a mixture of material stuff and ethereal soul.
Now, "fundamental" isn't the same as "fundamentalism." Still, there's enough commonality between me and a religious zealot to term us cousins, if not blood brothers.
In his book, Burton reminds us that we're biologically driven to search for meaning. This is a fundamental aspect of our existence, just as the ever-present sense of knowing is.
Knowing this won't change the reality of it. However, pondering the deconstruction section of "On Being Certain" has helped me see the limits of my worldview, even I can't do much, if anything, about it.
I have no reason to believe that the cosmos is comprehensible. But I believe that it is. That's an act of faith, a inescapable bit of grace from the hidden layer of my brain. Recognizing this, I feel like I've taken another step into the deep waters of openness to reality – including the very real possibility that ultimate reality can't be known.
Clear? I don't blame you if you're thinking, "…as mud." Maybe some final quotes from "On Being Certain" will add some clarity.
Burton notes that Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg famously said, "The more the universe appears comprehensible, the more it also appears pointless." Burton goes on to say:
The underlying assumption is that the presence or absence of purpose can be determined based upon whether or not the universe evolved in a random manner. Randomness is an observation; it isn't evidence against a higher-order design.
If I want my garden to look like a jungle, my best chance is to let the plants crawl all over one another. The garden may look like utter chaos, but that was my intent. Perhaps we are a well-designed experiment in futility.
The belief that we can rationally determine the difference between purpose and pointlessness arises out of a misunderstanding of the nature of purpose. We are further burdened by having a brain that learns by seeking generalizations over ambiguity. This preference prods us by producing its own mental state – the uncomfortable feeling that an ambiguous situation must have an answer.
I suspect that this feeling is a prime mover in the science-religion debate. No matter how strong the evidence for our inability to know why we are here, we continue to search for an answer.
Even when these questions arise out of paradoxes generated by contradictory brain functions, we feel that we should be able to solve the problem. The result is that we see patterns where none exist and don't see patterns that might exist.
What to do?
Wholeheartedly diving into not-knowing the big questions of life, for now and evermore – that's one way to go. Finding meaning in not knowing the meaning of it all.
There's more to say on this, naturally. Later…